A novel set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

Hive Society

The galaxy was a busy place, a crowded place, a place full of people and societies and civilizations all going about their business, even though all the useful bits, from the perspective of metre-scale beings with a carbon-water metabolism - the stellar systems, asteroid belts, Oort clouds and all the rest - occupied an infinitesimally tiny fraction of the total volume. Every planet, moon, and other conveniently-sized body was likely to already have inhabitants, a fact which sometimes came as a surprise to newly-Contacted, or perhaps just newly-emergent Stage-4 species.

The prevailing Culture view was that a planet was a huge waste of matter; it required so much material to produce such tiny usable areas of land and sea. To give its citizens plenty of living space - open spaces for play and adventure and amusement - without treading on the metaphorical toes of other residents in the galaxy, the Culture preferred to build Orbitals. Culture Orbitals were huge things, of course, but tended to be approximately the same size; they were set up for a standard day/night cycle and one standard gravity, generally narrow compared with their circumference, constructed largely from superdense materials and held together almost entirely by forcefields.

This thoughtful and accommodating management of natural resources, and the resulting avoidance of clashes over their use, was intended to demonstrate the Culture's unthreatening and unassuming nature to their fellow civilizations, and was believed to contribute to the continued peaceful relationships with the more mistrustful, suspicious, paranoid, obsessive or just plain envious species who watched the Culture's activities with eyes - or equivalent sensory body parts - wide open.

*

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.101]
  xGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Greetings! I have been asked to form an Incident Group to coordinate our response to the Castophrenic Widowhood threat in the vicinity of the Delphic Chaosarium. I invite you all to join.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.101+]
  xGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
I didn't realise you were in the volume. But happy to help.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.101+]
  xMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
I would be delighted to offer whatever assistance I can under the circumstances.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.101+]
  xGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
I accept.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.101+]
  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oLSV Road Less Travelled
Count me in.

[stuttered tight point, M32, tra. @n4.29.571.101+]
  xLSV Road Less Travelled
    oGSV Obambulatist
    oGSV Absolutely No You-Know-What
    oMSV Amphisbaena
    oGSV Chirality Test
    oGSV Rarely Disappointed
And me. Although I certainly don't appreciate some wretched hive of blattoid chasmophiles having the temerity to interrupt my cogitations.

  xGSV Obambulatist
Well, yes, I certainly understand your position. You have my sincere sympathies.
But I don't believe any of us saw this coming. The unpleasant truth we are now facing is that we didn't know very much about the CW before. And what we do know now - or at least think we know - suggests that they are rather more capable than anything our previous intelligence even hinted at.


  xMSV Amphisbaena
They seem to have developed some astonishing, even alarming capabilities - at least equiv-tech. Stuff we've never even heard of. Stuff they seem to have invented for themselves, somehow. Attacking our ships; running them down and disabling them. How is any of this even possible?

  xGSV Obambulatist
It is unknown. At least there haven’t been any total Mind losses yet. Although there's a worrying number of ships not reporting in as expected.

  xGSV Chirality Test
But we've been exploring the Galaxy, and the Clouds, for millennia, delving into every nook and cranny, under every Rock and planet we could find. How can we possibly have missed what the CW have been up to?

  xGSV Obambulatist
They've never had any kind of mentors, counsellors, guides, allies or any kind of affiliations, or even close contact with any other Civ, as far as we know.
They're barely a part of pan-galactic civilization: the minimum possible representation at the Galactic Council - really, the equivalent of a diplomatic post box. When they talk to us, they use Galin II, and that hasn't been used amongst the Involved for half a dozen millennia!


  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
So, no contact, on the basis that they've been leaving us alone, and we've been leaving them alone. Although that does seem to have changed suddenly.

  xGSV Chirality Test
Have we really? Been leaving them alone? No Contact at all? I for one have my doubts about this statement.

  xGSV Obambulatist
I've looked into this. Closely. Very closely. There's no record, anywhere, of any contact. Even in the, shall we say, more unconventional records. Nothing.
It looks like they have been hiding from us. From everybody. Deliberately. Over millennia. Not interfering with anybody, just biding their time until - well, now.


  xGSV Chirality Test
And why now, exactly? What's triggered this sudden change of stance?

  xGSV Obambulatist
Again, I have absolutely no idea. And nobody else seems to have a clue, either. It’s a complete mystery.

  xGSV Chirality Test
And they really have Minds?

  xGSV Obambulatist
Small-m minds, highly capable AIs, running their ships and habitats. Quite definitely sentient - possibly because it’s very difficult to make devices that smart without them becoming sentient whether you wanted them to be or not.
The CW hate the idea that there's anything around them which is cleverer than they are - it's the smartest, most ruthless individuals who have made it to the top of their pecking order - so they keep their AIs ruthlessly subjugated. Constructed to be able to feel pain as punishment, and installed to make that pain possible as part of their design.


  xLSV Road Less Travelled
Sentient beings, tortured agonisingly on a regular basis. Subjugated slaves with hard-wired controls to punish. And all as a matter of civilizational policy.

  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
Meat!

  xMSV Amphisbaena
I didn’t think the CW even had habitats. I’ve been given to understand they don’t like them. Apparently, the gravity’s all wrong for them. They like to take over rocky planets and transform them to their preferences - and they don’t really care who happened to be living there first.

  xGSV Obambulatist
They don’t have many habitats. That evolutionary hypersensitivity to microgravity changes and their innate awareness of 4D structures means they like to feel a solid planet under their legs. Even their ships lug around an entire mini-black-hole, just to provide a real sense of weight.

  xGSV Chirality Test
They can move an entire black hole, in hyperspace? Impressive, if a bit obtuse. AG is much more convenient.

  xGSV Obambulatist
Indeed. But now to business. This is our current disposition in the volume. [DiaGlyphs attached.] As you can see, actions are in place to reinforce our defences around the Delphic Chaosarium. It is all part of a rapid reaction to the CW ultimatum.
I will be accepting operational suggestions.


  xLSV Road Less Travelled
A panic reaction, more like. And a couple of ROUs are hardly reinforcements. Not against the kind of throw-weights that the CW seem to be able to deploy.

  xGSV Obambulatist
An Abominator-class GOU is supposed to be on its way, although I have not been copied its course schedule. We can put in a recommendation for more support beyond that.

  xLSV Road Less Travelled
Like that's going to happen any time soon.

  xGSV Obambulatist
Indeed. Such outright military resources we have are in great demand. And it will take time to ramp up production. I'm sure we'll all running our production systems at full capacity.

  xGSV Rarely Disappointed
Too little, too late. The Castophrenic Widowhood have been building up their forces for centuries. And right under our metaphorical notes the whole time.

  xLSV Road Less Travelled
Perhaps we should have been keeping a closer eye on them after all?

  xGSV Chirality Test
Too late. I’m sure we’re all running our own analyses and sharing any insights. Nothing notable from me at the moment, though.

  xGSV Obambulatist
Nor me. Any other suggestions.

  xMSV Amphisbaena
Point of order. We really need a name. For the Group.

  xLSV Road Less Travelled
Hah! How about the Coleopterologists?

  xGSV Obambulatist
I like it! Any dissention?
[Pause]
None. And so done.

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